Education on the Fundamentals of Our Government and Democracy is on Life Support: We Can Help
by Rodney G. Snow
As a nation, we are facing some of the most difficult decisions that have challenged us in a long time. Resolving today’s issues requires a citizenry that understands the fundamentals of our democracy. Unfortunately, education regarding our system of government has been lacking for many years. As reported by the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics at the University of Pennsylvania, the “lack of high-quality civic education in America’s schools leaves millions of citizens without the wherewithal to make sense of our system of government.”1 While most high school graduates can name the three judges on American Idol, very few can provide you the number or the names of the Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Surveys conducted over the past decade by the Annenberg Public Policy Center resulted in the shocking findings listed below.
• Only one-third of Americans could name all three branches of government; one-third could not name any.
• Just over a third thought it was the intention of the Founding Fathers to have each branch hold a lot of power, but the President has the final say.
• Just under half of Americans (47%) knew that a 5–4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9–0 ruling.
• Almost a third mistakenly believed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be appealed.
• When the Supreme Court divides 5–4, roughly one in four [Americans] (23%) believed the decision was referred to Congress for resolution; 16% thought it needed to be sent back to the lower courts.2
On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress for civics, more than two-thirds of all American students scored below proficient.3
On the same test, less than one-third of eighth graders could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and less than a fifth of high school seniors could explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.4
Civic learning is, at its heart, necessary to preserving our system of self-government. In a representative democracy, government is only as good as the citizens who elect its leaders, demand action on pressing issues, hold public officials accountable, and take action to help solve problems in their communities.…To neglect civic learning is to neglect a core pillar of American democracy.5
What has caused this decline in civics education over the last forty or fifty years? Some say it started with the disenchantment of the government brought on by Vietnam and Watergate.6 A primary reason cited is the unprecedented pressure to raise student achievement now measured by the standardized examination of reading and mathematics.7 The acronym STEM is often applied in measuring the value of success of our public and private school systems (science, technology, engineering, and math).
The No Child Left Behind, is also sharing the blame for standardized testing in math and reading. Pressure in these trends seems to have caused education regarding democratic principles to either take a back seat or disappear altogether.
Ironically, one factor driving national standardized testing for reading and STEM is an effort to maintain pace with China. Now, there’s an idea – let’s sacrifice education on the importance of the fundamentals of our democracy and the system we have in place to check government power to stay even with or exceed a people governed by a communist dictatorship where human rights are all but nonexistent8 and free elections are effectively out of the question.9
Did you know the constitution of Cuba is all but identical to ours? Many dictatorships or governments run by the military have written constitutions similar to or patterned after the United States Constitution. Why then is our government so different than that of Cuba or other countries? The people of those nations do not understand their rights and the courts exist for the government – not the people.
A citizenry educated on the concepts of our system of government is critical to our free society. As Abraham Lincoln stated:
Let it [reverence for the laws and Constitution] be taught in schools, seminaries and in colleges; let it be written in primers, in spelling books and in almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, enforced in courts of justice. In short, let it become the political religion of the nation.
Perhaps one of the more famous quotes on this subject is that of Thomas Jefferson, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”11 In 2002, the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), in partnership with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, convened a series of meetings involving leading scholars and civic education practitioners to consider the current state of young people’s civic learning and engagement.12 The participants’ conclusions and recommendations were summarized in a 2003 report titled The Civic Mission of Schools.
The key reason the CIRCLE report suggests for our failure to provide effective and meaningful civic education is the lack of institutional commitment to formal civic education.13
Civics Education Program
In some states, civics is not taught at all in junior high or high school. In Utah, civics education is a required course at the high school level. While we are fortunate in that respect, much more could be done.
In July, the Bar Commission created the “Utah State Bar Committee on Civics Education” to work with and facilitate the Bar’s law-related education programs directed by Kathy Dryer. The co-chairs of this committee are Rich McKeown of Leavitt Partners; Christian Clinger at the Institute for Advanced Mediation and a member of the Bar Commission; and Angelina Tsu, who works as legal counsel to Zions Bank. Angelina served on the Bar Commission when she was president of the Young Lawyers Division. This committee, under the direction of its able co-chairs, developed a lesson plan for lawyers and judges to use to teach a one-hour civics course in our high schools, hopefully on a semiannual basis. The lesson course is on judicial independence. Pilot programs have been run in several of our high schools and have been well received.
This is a turnkey operation. Those of you who have already volunteered to participate in this exciting project will be provided a lesson plan you can follow and enhance. Participation will not require a lot of preparation. The lesson plan objectives are:
• To support public education by supplementing high school students’ classroom learning about civics, specifically learning about the judiciary and the rule of law, with an interactive program focusing on analytical and language art skills.
• To instill a sense of responsibility and participation, and appreciation for the rule of law in high school students, specifically graduating, soon-to-be-voting seniors.
• To enable students to identify the three branches of government and the role of each.
• To help students understand the concepts of “separation of powers,” “checks and balances,” and the role of the courts within these concepts.
• To better inform students how judges make decisions and who the court system’s other players are and what roles they play.
• To explore the concept of judicial review and the role of the third branch in examining the constitutionality of written laws and statutes.
Well over 200 lawyers have volunteered for this opportunity. If you are interested in volunteering, please contact Christy Abad at the Bar office.